Grad Receives Award, Grant for Iditarod Project

December 6, 2011

It is a race like no other: dogsleds cover more than 1,150 miles of Alaskan wilderness for 10 to 17 days in early March. The Iditarod, which runs annually from Anchorage to Nome, provides a perfect setting for adventure. Translating that sense of adventure into a comprehensive project for algebra students is Mary Williams, a graduate of Mary Baldwin’s adult degree program and master of teaching program.

Iditarod dogsled and musher

Williams has so inspired her 8th graders at Midlothian Middle School that one student nominated her for an R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence from the Community Foundation. This award gives cash grants to exemplary educators in the Richmond area for professional development opportunities. Awarded a $9,000 grant in November, Williams will attend the 2012 Winter Iditarod Educator’s Conference in Anchorage and will experience racing first hand on a tour of the Iditarod trail.

“That one of my students nominated me last year and wrote a recommendation gave me validation for some of the crazy stuff I use in the classroom,” Williams said. “You have to come at it in different ways, especially teaching algebra, which every 8th grader must take.”

Williams’ Iditarod project gives students a break from regular algebra studies and teaches them how to use free, web-based technology to capture their thoughts. Each student first chooses a musher to track live using GPS and calculates how much food and supplies he or she will need to pick up at checkpoints along the trail.

Students then delve into new media and technology. Williams describes how to make glogs to illustrate their musher, how voicethreads
work as a reflecting tool, how Animoto makes sophisticated-looking videos, how to use avatars in blogging to experience another person’s perspective, and, more traditionally, how to write Iditarod-themed word problems.

At the end of the race, students create a final project to demonstrate their knowledge. Williams encourages them to choose whatever creative format they want, whether it be performing an original song, writing a short story, or creating a sculpture. An example of one student’s Iditarod project can be viewed here.

“It appeals to a lot of different learning styles and abilities, from gifted to special needs,” said Williams. “I wanted to find something to connect with the kids. The project started when I taught Gary Paulsen books in an English class. The project has evolved over the years to incorporate technology. Kids really like that.”

Williams credits Baldwin’s MAT program with developing the techniques she used to create the Iditarod project, specifically the inquiry method of teaching. Karen Dorgan, professor of education whom Williams calls “a phenomenal teacher,” explains that the inquiry approach encourages teachers to guide students as they explore new information on their own.

“This is in contrast to the teacher just ‘delivering knowledge’ into their brains, with the student taking a more passive role of receiving information,” said Dorgan. “Students in MAT are taught to integrate subjects within the curriculum … as in Mary’s case, math skills within a current events lesson. Thus, the skills are taught in a real-world context.”

Williams will literally be able to move from the classroom to real-world experience on this, her first, trip to Alaska in late February 2012. The educator’s conference will feature sessions on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and problem-based learning, while the tour will give participants a glimpse into the world of the Iditarod. She will receive training on handling sled dogs, stand on the front lines at the Iditarod’s start to keep spectators safe, and fly in a biplane to three checkpoints along the trail. While in Alaska, Williams will keep in touch with students back in Virginia via Internet and will also record her travels for use in future Iditarod teaching. She is still working on a plan to mount a small video camera on a hat to film her mushing lesson with a retired Iditarod racer.

“I am most looking forward to being around people who are excited about the Iditarod and being with other math teachers to learn how they integrate [the race],” Williams said. “A good teacher is constantly evolving.”